Project: Giraphics - 1983-84/1994/2016 (with Kristi Holohan assisting in 2016)
Dimensions: 6’/28’ x 12’/32’
Medium: Oils on Concrete/Steel
Location: Oakland/Harrison Streets beneath 580 Freeway Oakland
“…(In) a section of town with two busy thoroughfares that run in one-way directions under Hwy 580. Oakland Avenue and Harrison Boulevard transect a portion of the lower hills; parallel roads that connect the northern tip of Lake Merritt with the highway, MacArthur Boulevard, and the Oakland Hills. Therefore, people often move fast; too fast. The statuesque giraffes have been a part of this confluence of intersections for 32 years. Aztecali, a casual neighborhood eatery with home-style Mexican fare, has just joined the area this year. Both give cause to slow down and appreciate craft in two different forms; it makes giraffes and Mexico synonymous in my book.
The giraffes that stand upon columns and walls underneath Hwy 580 on Harrison Street and MacArthur Boulevard are the work of well-known local artist Dan Fontes. In 1983, Fontes was inspired by the jungle-like land tucked under the concrete maze. He thought of ways to transform the cold walls and massive column structures; “Giraphics” was born. After taking over 300 ideas into consideration, from missiles to cats to even spaghetti, it was ultimately the green and overgrown plot of land and the gentle and graceful nature of these tall giants that inspired his final choice. A combination of a small grant from the Oakland Redevelopment Agency, donations from friends, and his own contribution funded the project; Fontes was able to complete the original seven giraffes in 1984. Each one took about a month to complete, and were brought to life with the help of images supplied by local photographer Rick Mannshardt.
A festive celebration was held, and the early days of the Oakland mural movement found inspiration in the phrase “What would it look like if Oakland were more colorful?” Fast forward to the early 1990’s and the giraffes began to disappear, quite literally. The after effects of the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989 sent Cal-Trans into overdrive and the columns underneath Hwy 580 were added to the long list of retrofit work. Three of the original giraffes were encased in new steel and concrete shrouds that were added to the columns to improve strength. After seeing their beloved giraffes disappear, the children of Piedmont’s Wildwood School wrote over 300 letters to Cal-Trans, begging to bring them back. The local agency listened; in 1993 Fontes brought them back to life on the massive columns at the corner of Harrison and MacArthur, and below the freeway on Harrison.
I spent a bit of time with Fontes and his lead assistant Kristi Holohan on an overcast morning a few weeks ago. Fontes has recently been restoring the pair of giraffes on the underpass wall on Harrison, thanks to contributions from local supporters through a gofundme page. With an old folding table set on an incline, and a rather rickety set of scaffolding to reach the faces, necks and backs of the gentle giants, Kristi got underway cleaning the existing surface while Fontes and I chatted. He shared with me the joy he has received from the honks and waves he has gotten from passer-bys since he started the restoration work. He told me how one woman shared that her young daughter had named all the giraffes; I told him about how much I enjoy staring at the two on the columns on MacArthur whenever I am stopped by the red light.
The process to bring the vibrant colors back to life involves several stages. Cleaning with a heavy-duty solvent, scraping and dusting away chips, and priming any areas that are absent of paint is just the start. Once the surfaces are completely prepped a coat of oil underpaint is put down, followed by heavier oil paints once it is completely dried. Final steps involve adjustments to coloring, light, and shadow and edges are cleaned up. Multiple coats of an anti-graffiti sealer/varnish are added to allow for ease of cleaning if these giants ever do fall prey to tagging. My hope is that the gentle nature of their faces keep vandals away.”
-Adrienne Schell -Oakland Momma blog